Ferrous Aircraft Metals

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware

Many different metals are required in the repair of aircraft. This is a result of the varying needs with respect to strength, weight, durability, and resistance to deterioration of specific structures or parts. In addition, the particular shape or form of the material plays an important role. In selecting materials for aircraft repair, these factors plus many others are considered in relation to the mechanical and physical properties. Among the common materials used are ferrous metals. The term “ferrous” applies to the group of metals having iron as their principal constituent.


If carbon is added to iron, in percentages ranging up to approximately 1 percent, the product is vastly superior to iron alone and is classified as carbon steel. Carbon steel forms the base of those alloy steels produced by combining carbon steel with other elements known to improve the properties of steel. A base metal (such as iron) to which small quantities of other metals have been added is called an alloy. The addition of other metals changes or improves the chemical or physical properties of the base metal for a particular use.

Steel and Steel Alloys

To facilitate the discussion of steels, some familiarity with their nomenclature is desirable. A numerical index, sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), is used to identify the chemical compositions of the structural steels. In this system, a four-numeral series is used to designate the plain carbon and alloy steels; five numerals are used to designate certain types of alloy steels. The first two digits indicate the type of steel, the second digit also generally (but not always) gives the approximate amount of the major alloying element, and the last two (or three) digits are intended to indicate the approximate middle of the carbon range. However, a deviation from the rule of indicating the carbon range is sometimes necessary.

Small quantities of certain elements are present in alloy steels that are not specified as required. These elements are considered as incidental and may be present to the maximum amounts as follows: copper, 0.35 percent; nickel, 0.25 percent; chromium, 0.20 percent; molybdenum, 0.06 percent.

The list of standard steels is altered from time to time to accommodate steels of proven merit and to provide for changes in the metallurgical and engineering requirements of industry. [Figure 5-1]

Figure 5-1. SAE numerical index.

Figure 5-1. SAE numerical index.

Metal stock is manufactured in several forms and shapes, including sheets, bars, rods, tubing, extrusions, forgings, and castings. Sheet metal is made in a number of sizes and thicknesses. Specifications designate thicknesses in thousandths of an inch. Bars and rods are supplied in a variety of shapes, such as round, square, rectangular, hexagonal, and octagonal. Tubing can be obtained in round, oval, rectangular, or streamlined shapes. The size of tubing is generally specified by outside diameter and wall thickness.

The sheet metal is usually formed cold in such machines as presses, bending brakes, drawbenches, or rolls. Forgings are shaped or formed by pressing or hammering heated metal in dies. Castings are produced by pouring molten metal into molds. The casting is finished by machining.

Spark testing is a common means of identifying various ferrous metals. In this test the piece of iron or steel is held
against a revolving grinding stone and the metal is identified by the sparks thrown off. Each ferrous +metal has its own peculiar spark characteristics. The spark streams vary from a few tiny shafts to a shower of sparks several feet in length. (Few nonferrous metals give off sparks when touched to a grinding stone. Therefore, these metals cannot be successfully identified by the spark test.)

Identification by spark testing is often inexact unless performed by an experienced person, or the test pieces differ greatly in their carbon content and alloying constituents.

Wrought iron produces long shafts that are straw colored as they leave the stone and white at the end. Cast iron sparks are red as they leave the stone and turn to a straw color. Low carbon steels give off long, straight shafts having a few white sprigs. As the carbon content of the steel increases, the number of sprigs along each shaft increases and the stream becomes whiter in color. Nickel steel causes the spark stream to contain small white blocks of light within the main burst.

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